Obamacare anger fading among Hill Dems
By: Seung Min Kim
December 3, 2013 01:53 PM EST
For the first time in weeks, congressional Democrats are starting to breathe easier.
They’re relieved that the White House managed to upright the troubled HealthCare.gov website — enough to allow 1 million visitors to peruse insurance options on Monday. And President Barack Obama is going on offense on Tuesday, kicking off a campaign to defend the health care overhaul and sell its benefits to the country.
“I don’t think there’s any question whether people are feeling much better about the competence of the administration,” said Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.).
The fading sense of alarm was on display Tuesday when two top Obama administration officials briefed House Democrats — who have not been shy about their anger toward the White House – on the massive repairs to the Obamacare website.
While lawmakers and aides said little new information was relayed during the closed-door session, the tensions that have badly frayed the relationship between Capitol Hill and the White House recently seemed to decrease.
Democrats were more restrained inside the briefing than they had been in previous meetings with the administration, lawmakers and aides said. Fewer lawmakers were at the microphone questioning the officials – White House deputy senior adviser David Simas and Mike Hash, the head of the Office of Health Reform at the Department of Health and Human Services – and most of their concerns were focused on issues back in their districts, a person inside the room said.
Still, Democrats haven’t let the administration completely off the hook. A senior House Democratic aide said while lawmakers are no longer on “red alert,” there’s still a “great deal of anxiety” in the caucus about enrollment issues, whether the website actually functions smoothly, and potential other problems with Obamacare.
“It’s hard because members are at the mercy of the administration to make this work because the only ‘fix’ that could pass the Republican-controlled House is a repeal,” the aide said. “And regardless of the clear progress made over the last few weeks to the website, the administration didn’t win any favors with the caucus by trying to put too much of a shine at the start of the rollout.”
One issue raised during Tuesday’s meeting was the so-called “back end” problem with online enrollment – including the part that is supposed to relay key information about new Obamacare sign-ups from HealthCare.gov to insurance companies. That could increase concerns about whether consumers are actually enrolled correctly under Obamacare, and the administration has not disclosed how widespread those errors are.
“It looks like the website is getting better, but we’re still not sure it’s good enough, especially the back end problems and problems with the young people enrolling,” Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) said. “But it looks like the cure is underway.”
The flawed rollout of the health care law has hurt Democrats politically and threatens to be a liability in the midterm elections. It’s an especially frustrating turn of events for the party after it appeared to gain momentum after the government shutdown in October.
“The reality is that the website rollout has been an immense political and practical setback,” said Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.). “If improvements are made, the real test is going to be whether the public has a positive experience. So what the administration says about the improvements is insignificant compared to what users say.”
For other Democrats, it seems almost nothing may go far enough to repair the botched rollout.
“I’m thoroughly dissatisfied with the whole situation,” said Rep. John Barrow (D-Ga.), one of the most vulnerable House Democrats up for reelection who has backed several Obamacare proposals from Republicans. “I don’t know enough about whether the fixes have made it better, but I know the whole situation is still a mess.”
Frustration has been just as rampant on the other end of the Capitol, where several Senate Democrats – many of them facing tough reelection challenges in 2014 – have endorsed legislation intended to fix Obamacare’s most criticized flaws.
Some of those senators had eyed December as a perfect time to vote on Obamacare tweaks as they gauged the success of the website overhaul and other administrative fixes.
One plan that has gained traction with several vulnerable Senate Democrats comes from Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and would allow consumers to keep their existing health care coverage that would have been otherwise cancelled. The latest to sign up as a co-sponsor is New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall, a fellow Democrat up for reelection next year.
Another plan that has gained support among some Senate Democrats is a proposal from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), which would extend Obamacare’s enrollment period for at least two months. The enrollment period is currently scheduled to end March 31, 2014.
Aides to Senate Democrats who are backing fixes to the health care law said while they are happy the website is functioning better, that doesn’t change the need for legislation.
“We lost two months of valuable time because of problems with HealthCare.gov,” Shaheen said in an e-mailed statement. “We should give people more time to sign up for insurance by a minimum of two months.”
On putting forward legislative fixes to Obamacare, “that is a conversation that many members are wanting to have,” a Landrieu aide said.
But some Senate Democratic leadership aides said it appeared unlikely that bills will come to the floor this month aimed at tweaking Obamacare – saying they were in a wait-and-see mode before the chamber decides to move forward on legislation.
Timing is also a factor. In the Senate, the rest of the month is filled with other priorities, like approving key judicial and executive nominations, the defense authorization measure, and conference agreements on the budget, the farm bill and the water resources legislation. The Senate returns Dec. 9 and will most likely be in session for two weeks, although no formal adjournment date has been set yet.